With dumpy Left Bank hotels going for $250 a night, the only way my family was getting to Paris this summer was if some French family agreed to clear out and let us sleep in their beds, eat off their plates and use their bathroom for free.
Fortunately, a nice couple in the 11th arrondissement - an advertising manager and a travel executive - said that was fine with them. Of course, while we're watching Les Guignols de L'Info on their TV, they'll be watching Denise Koch or Deal or No Deal on mine.
Thanks to a weak economy and a Cameron Diaz movie, swapping homes is the way to vacation this year. Internet home-exchange services report big increases in people trying to stretch travel dollars with free, reciprocal housing arrangements.
"The single most costly item of any trip is accommodations," says Helen Coyle Bergstein, who founded home-trade site Digs ville.com in the 1990s. "If you eliminate that line item, that allows you to travel more often. To travel farther. Or to have a richer experience. Eat out more often. Do a side trip."
Or afford a trip you wouldn't have even contemplated if it came with a hotel bill.
"With an uncertain economy and rising fuel prices and a dropping dollar value, people wanting to take vacation are going to look at any way they can to save money," says Justin Bergman, senior editor at Budget Travel magazine.
The first question every home exchanger gets is: Will you really trust complete strangers to live in your house and drive your car?
It takes a certain faith. But I have yet to hear about a home swap that involved anything more negative than unreplenished toilet paper or divergent housekeeping standards.
Exchangers usually spend weeks or months communicating before the event, which builds trust and a mutual sense of responsibility.
The Parisians and I have shared a phone call and dozens of e-mails. We're shopping garage sales for car seats for their two little kids. They offered to find us cheap airplane tickets using their travel-industry connections. We traded family pictures.
Paul Larner and Rosita McKee of Catonsville got so chummy with a Texan they met through Home Exchange.com that the man offered to let them use his vacation condo for free, without any swap.
The couple and their children have exchanged in Paris, Telluride, Colo., and Limerick, Ireland.
A home trade "is a less-expensive way to spend an extended period in a different location," Larner said. "But equally if not more important, it's a different and more authentic experience - an opportunity to get to know another family. And all three exchange families that we've been involved with have been absolutely delightful."
Budget Travel recently commissioned six people to trade homes and report back. Presumably, the editors hoped to find a mixture of good and bad exchanges and dispense advice on how to avoid the latter.
But "their experiences were all so similar and positive, it didn't turn out to be a really compelling article," Bergman said.
Maybe the biggest potential headache is car trouble. Auto insurance companies usually cover exchangers as guests in your home, but check to make sure. And of course, says Bergman, lock up valuables or store them somewhere else.
Home exchanges were accomplished first via catalog and now on the Web. Intervac International and HomeLink International were founded in the 1950s and are still going strong. The Holiday, a 2006 movie in which the Cameron Diaz character swaps a Los Angeles house for one in the English countryside, popularized the concept.
You can browse home-swap Web sites for free, but most require membership to get contact information for would-be exchangers. (Digsville.com supplies the information to nonmembers and members alike.)
Memberships and listing your house online usually cost $50 or $100 a year, and many sites promise extended free listings if you don't score an exchange the first year. For the best response, you'll have to upload pictures of your house, but it's not difficult.
Swapping homes makes particular sense for European vacations this year. The weak dollar has made European hotels unaffordable for many Americans. Restaurants are problematic, too, and home stays let you save on food.
Fortunately, the cheap dollar is attracting hordes of Europeans. HomeLink.org lists 150 German houses and apartments whose residents want to switch with Americans. HomeExchange.com lists 35 Roman apartments and more than 200 homes in Paris, all occupied by people dying to exchange in the United States.
But not necessarily in Baltimore. "Baltimore is a bit of a challenge," says Larner.
It's more competitive than you might think, however. While most Europeans want to go to New York City, Florida or California, many are interested in Washington and the Maryland beaches. Baltimore and its suburbs - which of course have their own charms - are convenient to both.
Home trading is like dating. Good presentation and flirting raise the odds if you don't look like George Clooney - or own a four-bedroom loft in Greenwich Village. Larner gets three or four unsolicited exchange offers a year, he said.
We got a half-dozen proposals from Belgium, Holland and the French hinterland after listing our Howard County place on HomeExchange in October. I made five or six offers to places in central Paris before one young family said yes.
"What on earth were they thinking?" more than one person has asked me. Paris and Ellicott City aren't exactly peers in culture, cuisine, architecture and coolness. (Ellicott City does have one of the world's most popular Outback Steakhouses, however.) But the French couple worry that we're the ones getting the short end of the deal.
"I would like you to note that our apartment is very small," wrote Laurence, my Parisian interlocutor. "I wanted to emphasize this point because I know that houses are usually big in the U.S. I do not want you to be disappointed."
Ca ne fait rien, madame. Two bedrooms and a bathroom in Paris are a palace anywhere else. And the price is right.
HOME SWAP OPTIONS
Basic membership: $44.95
Web address: www,digsville.com
Features: Contact information free for nonmembers.
Basic membership: $99.95
Web address: www.homeexchange.com
Features: Many new European listings.
Basic membership: $110
Web Address: www.homelink.org
Features: Allows regional searches.
Basic Membership: $95
WEb Address: www.intervac.com
Features: Claims to be oldest exchange